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June 19, 2013
Editorial: If House enacts inhumane farm bill, Obama should veto it

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(June 19 -- By the Editorial Board)

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, was among 27 members of Congress in mid-June who took the challenge of living on the $4.50 a day average food stamps benefit. For three days, she lived on white bread, pasta, ramen noodles, canned peaches, American cheese, six eggs, day-old broccoli and milk.

A family of three on food stamps, on average, gets just under $400 a month for food. And temporary stimulus money that boosted food stamps ends Oct. 31, so that will drop by about $20 a month.

Matsui was protesting proposed cuts to food stamps in the House farm bill. This was the big sticking point among the Senate, the House and the president that prevented a farm bill from passing during the 2012 election year.

Unfortunately, the House bill proposes to cut $20.5 billion from food stamps over 10 years. By making it more difficult to qualify for food stamps, the bill means about 1.8 million people would lose benefits. Others would have their benefits reduced by about $90 a month.

The Obama administration already has said the House bill "makes unacceptable deep cuts" to food stamps and the president would veto the entire farm bill over this. The president is right to stand strong on this.

The Senate bill, in contrast, would cut $3.9 billion from food stamps over 10 years, reducing benefits for 500,000 families.

The farm bill should provide a food safety net, particularly during economic downturns, so Americans don't go hungry. The Great Recession, not surprisingly, increased the number of families that qualify for food stamps. Food stamp participation and costs will go down as the economy recovers. Senate cuts reflect this; House cuts go too far.

California has a big stake in this debate, as a state with the dubious distinction of being represented among the top 10 metropolitan areas in the country where large proportions of people struggle with food hardship. Bakersfield is No. 1, with 27 percent of residents struggling with food hardship; Fresno is No. 5; and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario is No. 6.

House and Senate bills agree on other issues. Both would eliminate direct payments to farmers - traditional farm subsidies - in favor of an expanded crop insurance farm safety net, to minimize the volatility of weather, pests and world prices. The House, however, would boost the subsidized crop insurance program significantly more than the Senate.

Self-interest, it seems, prevails over the common good, as shown by first-term Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee. A Japonica "sticky rice" farmer, LaMalfa in the past has received federal farm subsidies. He argued against food stamp spending but in favor of generous new guaranteed price supports for sticky rice.

The House would do better to scale back on its assault on food stamps by reducing crop insurance subsidies. Then the haggling can begin with the Senate to reconcile the bills and get a new five-year farm bill done so our producers can have some certainty and stability. The delays on a farm bill have dragged on for far too long.

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